War Trash recounts the travails of Yu Yuan, a Chinese veteran of the Korean War. Yu, who had been a student in a military academy when the Communists took over the Chinese government, was viewed with some suspicion by his superiors since he might harbor Nationalist sympathies. Still, he was valuable because he could speak English so well.
Once in Korea, Yu’s division was ordered to march south. Against the superior firepower of the Americans, the Chinese division got separated. Yu and a handful of others survived, nearly starving, in the wilderness for weeks until they were captured as POWs.
First at a collection center then at a series of camps, Yu struggles to survive as the Communists and Nationalists viciously clash with the captors doing little to maintain order until it reaches a boiling point, and the U.S. military arrives with force if not skill and strategy.
Although Yu is repelled by the extremism demanded by both factions of the Chinese, he is at turns required to prove his loyalty to both for survival, and when the war ends, Yu’s struggles are far from over.
Ha Jin has written War Trash in the form of a memoir drafted by Yu Yuan. As a result the prose is, as Yu might describe it, “documentary-like,” richly descriptive and detailed but not elegant or beautiful. Slang words and phrases like “meanie,” “saving his own skin,” “popped off,” and “roped me in,” are jarring and seem out of place – yet, maybe they aren’t because Yu learned English in part through reading the Stars and Stripes and through conversing with guards. In short, the book is not what I’d call well-written, but I cannot conclude if that is deliberate to reflect Yu’s voice or if it is because Jin didn’t rise up to his usual standards. I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt.
The story itself makes War Trash worth reading. Personally, I know little about the Korean War, and until reading War Trash, I knew nothing about the American-run POW camps. Jin outlines the inventiveness and determination of the prisoners but also the toll it took, as some slipped into depression or committed suicide. American men for the most part are represented as buffoons, saved by the strength of the military’s weaponry and equipment.
Chinese politics at the time serve as the backdrop. Only two years since the Communists seized power, the Nationalists, formerly in power and backed by the Americans, now ensconced in Taiwan, still believe they can triumph to win back the country. The Chinese POWs are pulled between these groups, fearing them both yet needing to form an alliance with one or the other. In the peace talks, the POWs became a bargaining chip. The Nationalists wanted to claim them to increase their ranks while the Communists wanted them to return to the mainland voluntarily to save face. Of course, Yu concludes that not just he and his fellow POWs but also many others affected and abandoned by the war effort are discarded and treated as war trash.